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Tainted “Tintoretto”: Venice Mayor Mars Kaywin Feldman’s Blockbuster Debut at National Gallery UPDATED

Having heard Luigi Brugnaro, Mayor of Venice, expound on Tintoretto‘s “values” during yesterday’s livestream of the National Gallery of Art’s press preview for the Venetian artist’s first full-scale retrospective in America (Mar. 24-July 7), I’m convinced that museums need to lay down some content guidelines (especially for non-museum professionals) to discourage pronouncements that are inappropriate for exhibition openings.

Screenshot of Venice Mayor Luigi Brugnaro speaking today at National
Gallery of Art
(NGA director Kaywin Feldman, on left)

I had cringed at last June’s press preview for Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination, when Timothy Cardinal Dolan preached to the Metropolitan Museum’s journalistic congregation:

In the Catholic imagination, the true, the good and the beautiful are so personal, are so real, that they have a name: Jesus Christ [emphasis added].

That excluded me (and others) who were not in the flock. But that was nothing compared to what was said yesterday at the NGA (beginning at 12:08):

“I am going to speak in Italian so I don’t make any mistakes,” declared Mayor Brugnaro, before making a whopper. Through a translator (who discreetly omitted the inflammatory part of his comments, in italics below, until he overruled her), he said this:

This exhibition is a testimony to the values—to the Western values, to Christianity.

Then he added:

This value of Christianity is a value that Venice has always defended, even though Venice has expanded its relationships around the world.

While it’s true that much of the art in the National Gallery concerns Christianity and that its holdings are Western, I’m sure Kaywin Feldman would be the first to say that her museum must be a place of welcome and inclusion for people of all faiths and nationalities.

Screenshot: Kaywin Feldman at the press briefing

Perhaps unbeknownst to Feldman, Brugnaro’s reputation for intolerance had preceded him: He reportedly had declared that “there will never be a Gay Pride [parade] in my city” and had also reportedly vowed that anyone shouting “Allahu Akbar” [“God is great” in Arabic] in Venice’s main square would be summarily shot: “We’ll send them straight to Allah before they can do any damage.”

On second thought, providing him with speakers’ “guidelines” might not have deterred him.

In her own introductory remarks, read somewhat haltingly from a prepared script, Feldman seemed ill at ease for someone with almost 20 years of directorial experience. Given more time in the national spotlight, she may become more comfortable in her new gig.

HELPFUL HINT: At this writing, the audio for yesterday’s livestream [UPDATED LINK HERE] above doesn’t kick in until 1:19 in the video. I heard the full audio when I accessed the livestream earlier today, but that version began with about 20 minutes of people filing into the room before the remarks began. It seems that in editing out that extraneous early footage, they also deleted the first minute or so of Feldman’s audio. [THE UPDATED LINK CORRECTS THIS, PROVIDING THE FULL AUDIO.]

I think it would have been gracious of Feldman to have generously acknowledged not only the NGA’s staff, whom she praised for their work on the exhibition, but also her predecessor, the NGA’s recently retired 25-year director, Earl “Rusty” Powell III, under whose auspices this landmark 500th-anniversary celebration of Tintoretto’s birth was brought to fruition after a five-year gestation.

Earl (Rusty) Powell III, speaking at the Sept. 27, 2016 preview for the renovation & expansion of the East Building
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Beginning at 15:32 in the press preview’s livestream, we can unreservedly take pleasure in the scholarly insights and articulateness that we’ve come to expect at the National Gallery, as Robert Echols, independent scholar, and Frederick Ilchman, chair of the Art of Europe and curator of paintings at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, describe their close collaboration in organizing the show:

Screenshot, L to R: Kaywin Feldman, Frederick Ilchman & Robert Echols

“We’re not quite John Lennon and Paul McCartney, but working as a team is fundamental to our approach,” Ilchman noted. “We write most of our publications on Tintoretto together and we sign them jointly.”

Echols noted that Tintoretto’s paintings “are not well represented in American museums, with the notable exception of the National Gallery of Art, which was able to furnish four major paintings to the exhibition” (which was previously seen at the Palazzo Ducale, Venice).

Here’s one of them:

“Doge Alvise Mocenigo and Family Before the Madonna and Child,” c. 1575, National Gallery of Art

Those who are hungry for more after enjoying the scholar’s and curator’s remarks from yesterday’s livestream can hear them lecture on Tintoretto in greater depth this Sunday at 2 p.m., in another NGA livestream. (Feldman said it would air on nga.gov, but I assume it will be posted on the museum’s YouTube channel, as was yesterday’s event.)

After that, you may feel as sorely tempted as I do to plan a trip to Washington.

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